University of Illinois Releases the Most Comprehensive Food Supply Chain Map

The Lempert Report
December 16, 2019

Megan Konar is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University and led the project to create a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S.—grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items.

It's a great guide for food retailers to see just how complicated today’s supply chain really is – and where improvements can be made. Overall, there are 9.5 million links between counties on the map.

Consumers all rely on distant producers, agricultural processing plants, food storage like grain silos and grocery stores, and food transportation systems.

At over 17 million tons of food, Los Angeles County received more food than any other county in 2012, their study year. It shipped out even more: 22 million tons.

California’s Fresno County and Stanislaus County are the next largest, respectively. In fact, many of the counties that shipped and received the most food were located in California. This is due to the several large urban centers, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the productive Central Valley in California.

A disruption, like wildfires, earthquakes and climate change in general to any of these counties may have ripple effects for the food supply chain of the entire country.

Many of the largest food transport links were also within California. This indicates that there is a lot of internal food movement within the state.

The food supply chain relies on a complex web of interconnected infrastructure. One example worth mentioning, a lot of grain produced throughout the Midwest is transported to the Port of New Orleans for export. This primarily occurs via the waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The infrastructure along these waterways—such as locks 52 and 53—are critical, but have not been overhauled since their construction in 1929. They represent a serious bottleneck, slowing down innumerable supply chains nationwide, including that of grain. If they were to fail entirely, then commodity transport and supply chains would be completely disrupted.